The act of ‘going to the fair’ is a wonderful thing; the gaudy, neon cousin of the theme park is one of the few places where you can truly indulge your inner five year old and leave without your bank balance screaming for mercy. Thanks to the deeply unhealthy but irresistibly delicious food on offer, the rides that seem purposely designed to make you lose said food and the seemingly endless ways one can indulge, the tacky but temptingly trashy decadence of it all is enough to make you giddy.
Imagine for a moment then, the sensory overload that is the largest, longest running funfair in northern Germany; the Hamburger DOM, held three times a year in the St Pauli area of Hamburg, on the Heiligengeistfeld.
Wandering around amid the giant teddy bears, colossal rides and stalls selling only the most succulent German sausages, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this orgy of colour and craziness had always looked this way. However, its beginnings go back far further than you might think.
How the Hamburger DOM started
The DOM began around the 11th century, when the old Mariendom was used by traders and entertainers as a shelter. Sadly the cathedral was demolished in 1804, and the previous occupants of the Mariendom were left without a regular spot for the winter market. For many years, they spent winters setting up in various different public spaces in Hamburg, including Gänsemarkt in the Neustadt. Happily, however, they were eventually offered a new, permanent home; the Heiligengeistfeld, where they have been ever since 1893.
During the 1930s, a spring market was also introduced to help local sellers through tough economic times, and a summer market was then added following the end of the Second World War. The season based, three times a year format remains to this day.
In German, ‘Dom’ translates as ‘cathedral’, thus the heritage of the fair explains its name. Also, as a separate note of interest, Heiligengeistfeld translates as ‘Holy Ghost Field’, which is certainly appropriate as the site is eerily empty when the DOM isn’t there.
Now of course, things are a little different from the fair’s humble beginnings. That said, even if the colossal rides don’t appeal, it’s still more than worth your time if just to experience the addictive atmosphere, which is particularly special after dark. Grab a beer and a Bratwurst and stroll around in the multi-coloured haze of neon lights, unashamedly enjoying the cheesy 90s pop music blasting out from loudspeakers and browsing the stalls full of gingerbread, jelly snakes and pastries.
The DOM offers plenty of entertainment, and not always in the most obvious ways. It is possible, for example, to enjoy the slightly bizarre but delicious experience of buying a giant pickle, served to you from a barrel in the shape of…a giant pickle. For a taste of Hamburg, try a Fischbrötchen. Simply called a ‘fish roll’, this is a lump of crusty bread stuffed with fresh prawns, shrimps, pickled herring, crab meat or breaded cod, often served with onion, lettuce, pickles and herby remoulade or garlic sauce.
Look out, too, for the faces of the poor souls who have just won their partner a gargantuan stuffed toy and realised they now need to manhandle it home on the U-Bahn. Whether your experience of the Hamburger DOM involves a heart-stopping five minutes twirling around the top of an enormous drop tower or quietly tucking in to a roasted ham sandwich in a cosy Bavarian-style beer hall, we defy you not to get sucked into the atmosphere and enjoy yourself.
A great idea all year round if you’re in Hamburg on a budget
The Winterdom takes place just as everyone is starting to feel festive before Christmas, and is definitely our favourite out of the three events running throughout the year. The sweet smell of Schmalzkuchen (tiny, deep-fried German donuts) wafting through the cold winter air is something truly special, and watching swirls of steam dance off your mug of Glühwein before you take a long, warm gulp just makes you feel all fuzzy inside. The Frühlingsdom (Spring DOM) signals a welcome break from the harsh Hamburg winter, and the Sommerdom appears in the height of summer, with visitors swapping ceramic pots of mulled wine for glasses of chilled beer. If you make it to one (or all) of the Hamburger DOM events, try to catch one of the fabulous fireworks displays which happen every Friday night.
With no entry fees, the DOM is ideal for travellers visiting Hamburg on a budget too, and is easy to get to from St Pauli, Feldstrasse and Messehallen U-Bahn stations. To really save money, head over on a Wednesday for special discounts on rides and selected food. You can grab half a metre of Bratwurst crammed into a baguette for under 3 euros, pay less for rides (and therefore go on twice as many) and have double the fun for half the price. Check out the Hamburger DOM 2019 dates here.
It’s no secret that we’re passionately in love with Hamburg, but we mean it when we say that if you’re in the city when the DOM is taking place, indulge your senses and enjoy this impossibly colourful feast of flashing lights and decadent treats – we truly can’t recommend it enough.
All images © Two Wild Wanderers